It was a move that took a tremendous amount of courage, coming only after long, agonizing study. Dismayed at the actions of a Democratic Party that had abandoned him, the powerful Georgia state senator switched over to the Republicans.
The change meant calls of traitor from Democrats, with a mix of welcoming praise and cautious distrust from the GOP. But it also meant an immediate drop in prestige and seniority. After all, anyone who leaves the top ranks of one party goes to the back of the line in the other party, and has to work his or her way up.
Don Cheeks? Could be. But were talking about another party-switching state senator, one who quickly climbed to the top. Now Sonny Perdue will soon become Georgias first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Four years ago, when Perdue was agonizing over his decision, he met in Augusta with state Sen. Don Cheeks, another Democratic state senator who had seen his party march leftward.
Perdue had a lot to lose by switching. He was serving as president pro tempore of the senate, next in line behind the lieutenant governor and one step up from the state Senate majority leader - state Sen. Charles Walker, Cheeks fellow Augusta delegation member.
Its easy to switch with everything to gain. Just ask Columbia Countys former Democrats, who switched to the Republican Party rather than lose future elections in the face of a rising GOP tide. That includes retiring state Rep. Bill Jackson, Probate Judge Pat Hardaway, Coroner Tommy King and Tax Commissioner Kay Allen.
But for Perdue, switching parties four years ago meant being stripped of leadership roles and being distrusted by many in the party to which he shifted his allegiance. During this years Repub-lican primary, Perdue was one of three ex-Democrats the Republicans grumbled about; the others were Barbara Dooley, who lost in the GOP primary for the 12th District U.S. congressional seat to another ex-Democrat, eventual General Election winner Max Burns.
hen Perdue again joined Cheeks in Augusta last Fri-day, it wasnt just to celebrate a party switch; it was to mark a role-reversal. Basking in the thunderous applause of supporters inside a cavernous Daniel Field hangar, Cheeks was welcomed to the tough decision Perdue made back in 1998.
It took me a few years to do what I do today, Cheeks told the cheering crowd as he announced his Republican affiliation - the second Democrat that day to do so, starting the swing of power in the state Senate to the GOP.
Sonny Perdue needs help in this state if hes going to do the job he needs to do, Cheeks said. He cant do that with two bodies of the Legislature against him.
As fitting as the scene of the earlier party-switcher welcoming Cheeks to the fold was the front-of-the-stage handshake from state Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling. Before last Friday, Brush was facing the prospect next January of sharing power on the Senate side of Columbia Countys delegation with a Democrat, who would by virtue of majority rule be given veto power over all local legislation.
Instead, Brush now is part of the majority party and shares power with a colleague on the same side of the aisle - a colleague who gave up a position of power in order to try out for a position on a winning team.
History, certainly, is on Cheeks side - and not just the past four years of history. The significance of Perdues election tells the story: No Republican was elected governor of Georgia in the 20th century. And thus far, no Democrat has been elected governor of Georgia in the 21st century.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to bpaschal@ yahoo.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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